Hawaiian Electric Co. Gets New CEO & Voted Utility Of The Year

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Hawaiian ElectricHECO was named as the Utility of the Year by Utility Dive in December 2019 for its progressive renewables policy and is ‘transforming the power sector.’ Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI) is the parent company of Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), the energy utility for the island of Oahu.

This is great news for HECO, and a great opportunity for Hawaii to step up as a leader in the renewable energy space. And yet, as a citizen of the island for 20 years, an award recognizing HECO’s progressive work was a bit surprising. In my circles of sustainabilty-minded folks, HECO is often seen as a stalwart, conservative organization that cares more about maintaining the status quo than being a leader in this space.

How is HECO Leading the Way for Renewables?

As Utility Dive explains, HECO has been making strides across the energy landscape, and is working hard to meet the Hawaii mandates of 100% renewables by 2045. On this path, “The company expects renewables to make up 30% of its generation portfolio in 2020 and is aiming for 70% by 2040.”

What strides did HECO make to help earn them this optimistic vote from Utility Dive?

  • Launching a smart EV charging program in September of 2019 to charge during the daytime only, using eMotorwerks JuiceBox smart chargers in partnership with Enel X and Elemental Excelerator.
  • In August 2019, HECO issued its largest procurement effort (and one of the largest in the US) in a call for 932 MW of solar capacity. According to the press release, the solar will be split between 594 MW of solar for Oahu, 135 MW for Maui, and up to 203 MW for Hawaii Island.
  • Naming new leadership: Announced in December 2019, Scott Seu was named as CEO of HECO, with the transition happening in early 2020. Seu is quoted as saying, “We’re actually going faster than probably any other utility in the nation [however] the main message we want to send is that we want to go faster.”

Hawaii’s local independent news source, Civil Beat, seems optimistic about the transition. Seu has been working with HECO for years as senior vice president, “overseeing HECO’s regulatory, government and community affairs and corporate relations during a time of rapid and fundamental change.” That is, changes to how Hawaii makes energy. Those changes are ongoing and significant. “HECO is responsible for implementing the bulk of the work to shift from fossil-fuel power plants to solar and wind farms owned and developed by third parties,” writes Stewart Yerton on Civil Beat.

Room to Improve

This is all awesome news for our island state, though as a responsible citizen that’s marginally engaged in our civil processes, it seems a bit surprising. I have long heard that HECO is lagging behind and being difficult about moving forward renewable energy projects and grid modernization.

In the state, our energy grid uses imported fossil fuels for a good portion of our energy, along with a low-efficiency waste-to-energy plant; there is a good amount of renewables, but as of 2018 it was only at 27%. There is a long-term contract for the waste-to-energy plant (despite opposition and clear evidence that’s it’s not an effective use of our waste). There is also resistance to many of the renewable projects happening here (which I intend to explore more fully in a subsequent article), which makes HECO seem like the bad guy. 

Chris Lee, one of our most progressive leaders in Hawaii

In order to get a more clear picture of how HECO’s policies have played out for our island residents, I reached out to Chris Lee, one of the youngest and most progressive members in the House of Representatives (and soon, hopefully, State Senator). Lee has been active for years for great, progressive causes, including our recent monumental plastic ban.

In a phone conversation, Lee told me that while HECO has made a lot of progress, there is definitely room for improvement. HECO is at the cusp of transforming its fundamental business model of making money from selling electricity to a business built on better standards for the community. This modernized utility will be able to reduce rates, improve renewable infrastructure, and build a grid that’s ready for the 21st century. However, this legislation, passed in 2018, is suffering from what Lee calls ‘institutional inertia,’ citing lack of movement of the Board.

In another example of this slowness, he noted that HECO has historically been resistant to moving forward community solar projects. After a decade of community organization around this, finally the Community-Based Energy Program was passed in 2015 – but it was only September of 2019 that the first community solar project in the state was finally announced. Lee also made note of the inability of businesses and residents to sell energy back into the grid, leaving us with no marketplace for energy generation. He says this hurts consumers, keeps rates high, and it’s a big opportunity for growth for the utility. Finally, Lee agreed that Seu is a ‘good pick’ for his new role as CEO, and yet much of the progress that needs to be made is dependent upon the Board of Directors.

HECO is really poised to do great things to ensure it maintains its recent good traction in the move towards renewables, and hopefully with broader citizen awareness of climate issues, HECO will be more aggressive towards the modernization of processes and programs so that this utility can become the leader our residents want it to be.

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Andrea Bertoli

I'm a marketing and sales professional focused on mission-driven businesses. I'm a journalist, green investor, wellness educator, surfer, and yogi. Find delicious food and wellness stuff on my Instagram @VibrantWellness.

Andrea Bertoli has 119 posts and counting. See all posts by Andrea Bertoli